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Buddhism in South Korea - "Monk" business

The Economist, Oct 5th 2013

It is not all sweetness and light at the biggest Buddhist order

SEOUL, South Korea -- THE Venerable Jaseung has, of late, become good at saying sorry. When eight senior monks were caught smoking and boozing over a game of high-stakes poker in a hotel room last year, the leader of the Jogye order, South Korea’s biggest Buddhist sect, led the 108-bow repentance. Many thought he should resign. He assured them he would not run for election again. But on September 16th, he belatedly entered the race—and swiftly apologised for doing so.

He joins four others in a bid to win an election on October 10th to lead 24 chief monks and 10m faithful, and manage 2,500 temples, an annual budget of 33 billion won ($30m) and millions more in property—including lucrative cultural monuments and tracts of land leased to the government as national parks. The Venerable Boseon, Venerable Jaseung’s main rival, says the gambling binge proves the order needs “a complete makeover”. Monks, he says, should return to meditation, and tougher penalties should be meted out for mischief.

Promises of reform followed the scandal. In June the order passed recommendations upholding the ascetic life: avoid big cars, posh restaurants and stockmarket investments. The sect accepts it will lose its tax-free status in 2015.

As in politics (and, indeed, in some American mega-churches), corruption, sex and in-fighting mix readily. Tales of upmarket brothels followed the poker saga; Venerable Jaseung’s camp accused the whistle-blower, who had been expelled from the order after a feud, of once attempting to rape a nun and buying a car with temple funds. Rival factions have engaged in street brawls and launched raids to oust leaders, who in turn hired thugs to beat them off.

Hwang Soon-il, a professor of Buddhism at Dongguk University in Seoul, says elections are a real innovation in the Jogye order. Before reforms in 1988, a committee handpicked leaders who “kept going until they lost power”. South Korea’s shift from military dictatorship to democracy fed egalitarian hopes within temples too, Mr Hwang says. Factions and indirect elections began in 1994—as did political manoeuvring and shifty cliques.

One such group is the Bulgyogwangjang, or Buddhist Square, set up in July to lead one candidate to election victory. It is “an illegal, pro-Jaseung organisation”, says the Venerable Kangseol, who led a 20-day silent protest at the Jogyesa temple in Seoul against the incumbent’s bid for a second term. Twenty of the order’s 24 district leaders are members, and they each elect ten monks who cast ballots. Vote-buying, says the Boseon camp, is a big concern.

Although most monks call for direct elections to limit the power games, Mr Hwang worries that it will force the order’s many Zen monks to enter the fray. Better, he says, to devolve power to the district leaders and big provincial temples, a campaign pledge shared by both sides.

Both rivals argue that there are improvements this time round. Smear campaigns are fewer, while the Venerable Jaseung is unlikely to win 90% of the votes, as he did in 2009. Still, abbots at rural temples notice a steep decline in devotee numbers during elections. Followers are weary of the bickering too.

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